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Allen Johnson: New challenges for the dean of UNC System chancellors

Allen Johnson: New challenges for the dean of UNC System chancellors

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The current issue of Time magazine features essays, interviews and conversations on “The New American Revolution: Visions of a Black Future that Fulfill a Nation’s Promise.”

Among those whose perspectives are included: musical artist and producer Pharrell Williams; tennis star Naomi Osaka; television writer, director and producer Kenya Barris; professor-activist Angela Davis … and Harold Martin.

In a back-page interview, the N.C. A&T chancellor is characteristically candid in his answers to questions that ranged from Donald Trump to Kamala Harris to George Floyd to the coronavirus.

For instance, Martin gives props to the current administration for its support of historically black colleges and universities.

“HBCUs have fared well in federal funding over the past three years," he says. "Title III support has increased. Eighty-five million in annual STEM funding for HBCU’s was made permanent, and year-round funding for Pell Grants was approved. Passage of all of those reflect positively on the President and his Administration.”

As for Trump’s spectacularly inflated pronouncements that he has done more for the Black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln, Martin is not so impressed.

“Well, I’m insulted, quite honestly,” he says. “I’m sort of appalled that one would make such a claim.”

Finally, on the president's leadership in the midst of the roiling racial unrest in the nation (the Time interview was conducted before the shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake, who, like Martin, is a Winston-Salem native): "I think he tends to inflame situations and tends to divide us vs. providing a voice that is healing our nation on the heels of COVID-19, where there's been evidence of so many missteps by the Administration."

This is Martin’s way.

He is an electrical engineer by training. And engineers don’t fudge.

Problem-solver

A key to Martin’s success at A&T has been his ability to analyze a situation and devise a solution.

While his cred as an A&T alumnus (the first to become chancellor) and former dean of engineering endeared him to the Aggie community, it only opened the door.

Once he was back home at A&T, there was still a lot of heavy lifting to be done.

Martin needed to make transformational changes in a culture that was fiercely proud but also insular and entrenched. And struggling.

Enrollment had declined.

The school had been buffeted by turnover at the top. Three chancellors had come and gone in the span of 10 years.

Martin’s immediate predecessor, Stanley F. Battle, had lasted less than two years.

As of June, Martin completed his 11th year at A&T.

He is the longest-serving active chancellor in the UNC System. And he'll turn 69 years old on Oct. 22. But you wouldn’t know it from either his trim, 6-foot-plus frame or his I’m-just-getting-started sense of enthusiasm.

Graduation and retention rates at A&T have significantly improved.

The number of applications has grown as well (to more than 25,000 in 2019).

Alumni giving has risen.

On Martin's watch, the school has reorganized its colleges and academic programs.

A&T has both raised admissions requirements and achieved record enrollment. With an expected fall enrollment of about 12,800, it remains the largest HBCU in the nation.

And in 2017, HBCU Digest named Martin America’s most influential HBCU leader.

Athletics, too

From the moment he set foot back on A&T’s campus, Martin also made it clear that he wanted to see success in sports.

When he returned as chancellor, A&T’s football program was in tatters. Now it has won three consecutive national Black-college championships and four out of the last five.

Make no mistake, academics come first for Martin. But he values the role of sports as a point of pride for the students, faculty and alumni and an enhancement to campus life.

Martin also cites the demand among local business for “access” to home football games, whenever they resume (A&T has suspended fall sports as a COVID-19 precaution).

You could, in fact, view football as a metaphor for what Martin has done more broadly at A&T.

It’s not enough to beat HBCU arch rival N.C. Central (though it’s still just as sweet). It’s even better to defeat East Carolina — at East Carolina — as the Aggies did in 2018.

The Aggies also have played Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.

And next year they’ll leave the historically Black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to compete in the Big South.

Slow down? Retire? Are you kidding?

He was having too good a time, he told me over lunch in 2019. And there’s more to do.

Keys to success

How has he lasted so long in a job that typically turns over every seven or eight years? And why?

When I asked Martin that question in 2019, he quickly ticked off several reasons:

  • A&T is his and his wife Davida’s alma mater.
  • He enjoys working with A&T’s Board of Trustees, which he describes as “exceptional.”
  • Alumni giving had reached “record numbers” before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A&T’s profile is on the rise in the local business community and its prominence is growing in the Triad and state economies. The university generates more than $1 billion annually in regional economic impact.

Why leave now?

“We’re in a very good place,” Martin said.

Perhaps Martin’s most difficult challenge — and success — has been to sell the A&T community on the idea that it shouldn’t aspire to be merely a great HBCU. It should aspire to be a great university, period.

That it should see the possibilities for growth and competitiveness “beyond an HBCU space.”

“That market is a small market and has limitations in demonstrating its continued relevance to parents and students and industries who are looking to recruit its graduates,” he says.

He wants to excel on a bigger stage. And A&T is doing that.

A&T and Greensboro

As for Greensboro and A&T, Martin sees them as joined at the hip economically.

A&T benefits when the city’s economy is strong, and the city benefits when A&T is strong.

That’s why the disparities between east Greensboro and the rest of the city especially concern him.

There is a shortage of housing and other amenities in the east.

That means fewer options for faculty and staff to live near the campus, or to shop or have lunch or dinner.

“Now, one of the challenges for me personally and for this community, in my mind, is that there’s an east Greensboro and a west Greensboro,” Martin said in 2019. “We happen to be in east Greensboro.

“And you can look at any factors that you characterize as success measures for regions — unemployment, wealth, access to goods and services. When you look at east Greensboro, it suffers in almost every measurable characteristic of a vibrant community that you can think of.

“In my mind, all of those things negatively impact A&T.”

As Martin sees it, what's good for east Greensboro is good for A&T and what's good for A&T is good for east Greensboro.

He added: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that this community has allowed east Greensboro to continue to be void of many of the amenities it needs to thrive as a vibrant community."

This is not a new concern for Martin.

He was instrumental in the founding of the East Market Street Development Corp., today called Greensboro Now, which promotes economic growth in east Greensboro.

Martin leads conversations among local university leaders for the Piedmont Triad Partnership about higher education’s influence on the region’s prosperity.

Incidentally, since UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam arrived five years ago, both of Greensboro's UNC System campuses have been led by African American males.

“When I first arrived at UNC-Greensboro to become chancellor in 2015, Harold was very generous with his time," Gilliam said last week.

"He gave me great insight about Greensboro, the UNC System, and the strong relationship shared between our two institutions. We have had a number of collaborations together over the years, from the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, to our more recent Joint Master of Social Work Program. He’s been a great sounding board for me, and I consider him a friend and a mentor.”

And for all the engineering in his DNA, Martin also is socially nimble, whether it’s on the dance floor with his wife at an alumni fundraiser or mixing with alumni at homecoming festivities.

Always something

But what has he done for us lately?

Being a UNC chancellor is one of the most demanding jobs in the state, a witches’ brew of culture and politics and mounting financial pressures on both students and campuses.

Enter COVID-19, which forced UNC System campuses to begin the fall semester with both hybrid classes, which combine in-person and online instruction, and strictly online classes.

Martin tells Time he is feeling “guarded but comfortable” about the school year so far.

“Our students are responding overall,” he says to a question about the protocols for masks and social distancing.

“They are 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, though, and we have to continue to remind them of the expectations, quite honestly.”

A&T has thus far avoided the clusters of infections that forced UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and East Carolina to shift exclusively to online classes.

But Martin told A&T trustees last week that the university faces a projected shortfall of a much as $14 million because of COVID-19.

It comes with the territory.

Stay long enough, no matter what you’ve accomplished today or yesterday, there will be a fresh crisis in the morning.

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